Faculty Chronicles: Working Through my new Fear of Writing

Writing-freelancerAs I near the two-year mark as a junior faculty member, I have been spending a lot of time thinking about what I have learned transitioning from a college student affairs educator~practitioner to a faculty member. Where have I been ‘successful’ and where am I ‘struggling’ (both self-defined and institutionally defined). Writing about this seems important for my own personal reflection.

How I Became Fearful of Writing

What I have found most challenging in the transition is writing (this is true, despite my oft-stated notion that grading student work has been the most challenging, a topic for another post). While ‘writing’ is~was often cited during faculty preparation workshops and orientations as the most challenging part of the transition, I had not anticipated it being as challenging as it has been.

The challenge comes not from my inability to write; or even a lack of desire. Rather, over the past two years I have become fearful of writing. This is manifested primarily as a mental and physical aversion to the process.

How did this develop – or rather, how did I become fearful of writing? I emerged from graduate school a confident and enthusiastic writer. I was told by mentors and colleagues that I was a ‘beautiful writer,’ that my research was pushing the boundaries of my profession; that I would have contributions to make. But ever-so-slowly this confidence has completely eroded.

Rejection is Real

At least part of what has happened to me centers on the difficulty of dealing with rejection. I should clarify this statement, because much of my scholarship that I have submitted to peer reviewed journals has not been ‘rejected’ outright. But the feeling of rejection is definitely there in various capacities.

I have had some clear rejection of course; journals just desk rejecting a manuscript. This is not particularly difficult to deal with; you just send it to another journal. I was and still am mentally prepared for this actual outright rejection.

However, what I was not prepared for was the way that academic journals actually operate in terms of time and in terms of contradictions. The slow, archaic nature of the peer-review process has baffled me. I’ve been out of graduate school for two years already, and I have manuscripts I submitted two years ago still going through review processes – some revise & resubmit; and at least one that I pulled from consideration at a journal after receiving three rounds of contradictory feedback from reviewers. That means I had to start over at a completely different journal.

This slowness feels like rejection, even if it is not rejection. It has led me to think that the solo and co-authored works of which I have been a part are not worthy of being seen by other academics or the world in general. This has made it incredibly difficult to feel motivation to continue writing because it has caused me to believe that I am not a good writer; or that I am incapable of producing writing, even through multiple iterations of revise and resubmit processes, that others feel is good enough to publish.

This was coupled with academic conference rejections over the past year; and at least a partial hangover from a particularly painful experience I had several years ago at a conference where a discussant eviscerated a paper I presented not only publicly, but also on their blog. One side of my brain tells me – ‘this is the price and difficulty of doing research, asking hard questions, or attempting to push the field in new directions.’ The other part of my brain says – ‘this rejection is miserable; perhaps you should try to stop boundary-pushing and just produce cookie-cutter research like most everyone else.’ (And yes – I think that a sizable amount of research is incredibly cookie-cutter and pedantic – largely stemming from a culture that sees productivity in terms of quantity versus quality, and academic journals that increasingly seem to value particular structures of scholarship over others).

Comparison

Then you start comparing yourself to other scholars, which we are told not to do but seems almost an impossibility. Social media and technology in general has made this particularly more difficult to avoid. When you start seeing other scholars publishing books, giving keynotes, or pumping out what appears to be an unending cycle of peer-reviewed articles, panic sets in. ‘Well, crud. These people are doing it; what the heck is wrong with me?’ This is just a very real part of the process.

How I Started Internalizing

I’m learning that a large part of writing is purely psychological. We begin internalizing the messages we are receiving, or we think we are receiving. This can lead to particular ways of being in the world. So, whereas I used to write every day at the start of my faculty career – a habit and way of being that I developed as a graduate student thanks to my writing groups and strong writing mentor, Dr. Petra Munro Hendry – well, over the past two years this has faded away as I’ve internalized messages that my writing is poor or unworthy of reading; that I’m not a productive scholar because I’m not producing quantity. Why write if nobody is going to read it, or if it is just going to be continuously stuck in cycles of contradictory feedback, I began thinking?

This turns into a cycle that Helen Sword (2017) describes as the moral aspect of writing. There is a “puritanical belief that productivity is a mark of personal virtue, while failure to publish denotes a deep-seated character flaw” (Sword, 2017, p. 4). I rail quite aggressively against capitalist, neoliberal logics. That doesn’t mean I am immune from internalizing the belief structures of the system – and this is exactly what it feels like sometimes as an early career scholar and writer. Like you have moral failings or character flaws. It is heavy stuff to internalize.

Starts and Stops

All of this has led to many starts and stops. I have become a writer who has many manuscripts in partial or almost complete draft form, but I push them aside, fearful of finishing them and sending them out into the ether. None of this is very helpful, of course. Not for my career, not for my psychological or emotional well-being, and certainly not for pushing the boundaries, creating new knowledge, or finding joy in the act of creating knowledge.

How I am Becoming Re-Invigorated by Writing

Coming into this summer I set a goal for myself of attempting to work through this new fear of writing that I had developed over the past two years. There are a series of ways I am doing this.

Working Through the Backlog

First, I set a goal for myself of working through the backlog of unfinished manuscripts. I aim to have at least two out by the time Fall term begins, including the manuscript that was eviscerated by a discussant years ago at that conference. I believe in that work, even if it makes others uncomfortable. And I believe that these manuscripts have something to add to a larger discussion. I have to stop telling myself that they do not.

Giving up on Perfection, Embracing Intellection as Process

A second part of this ‘working through’ is thinking about how knowledge does not have to be perfect. At least part of the stress and tension of being an academic and a writer is recognizing that in order to advance knowledge, at least at some level we have to recognize that ideas take time to evolve and become themselves. Even though the larger world is quite hostile to people’s ability to change and (re)think ideas over time, we have to reassert intellectual curiosity into the world. We need ideas out there in order to have a discussion, a dialogue, and advance our own personal and collective becoming. Given the state of our dualistic and vitriolic world, I believe in this now more than ever.

Reading About Writing

I’ve restarted reading about writing. In a graduate writing seminar at LSU we used to read books about the writing process. I always found this so helpful, because it helped me see writing as a differential process for everyone. It was informative to see the struggles that other ‘prolific’ scholars whom I admired went through. So this summer a small group of writers, thinkers, and scholars of which I am a part is reading Air & Light & Time & Space by Helen Sword (2017).

Thus far I am finding the book super helpful because it is not a prescriptive book. It is a book of possibilities – which I love. Sword (2017) is suggesting that we each have a writing BASE, and this shifts over time and space. There is not a right way to write; a right space or place. Rather, there is just writing and experimenting with writing. This reminds me so much of Laurel Richardson and Elizabeth Adams St. Pierre – whose piece “Writing as Inquiry” I still have graduate students read as a way of challenging the often boring nature of academic writing.

Writing

Finally, I’m writing again. In notebooks. In margins. On this blog. Through the manuscripts and new ideas I have. I’m seeing this writing as important in working through the fear of writing that I have unintentionally veered into over the past two years. This is joyful. I am rediscovering the joy of thinking, crafting, and creating – and starting to realize it may not be about whether others find this important for themselves or the field. But rather, to do it for my own benefit.

After all – I feel like I fell into this field, or chose this career, in order to think; to spend time with and treasure the life of ideas. Writing is a big part of that. I’m getting on with it.

Reference

Sword, H. (2017). Air & light & time & space: How successful academic write. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

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So excited for my colleague Dr. Lane, and so glad to be surrounded by scholars who serve! #SHSUHIED #SHSU #safaculty My latest blog is posted at www.profpeaton.com - a new series called the Faculty Chronicles. #vulnerability #bekind Good morning. Excited to work with all our new #SHSUHIED students, like Jody! Topic: Cormac McCarthy's "Child of God"
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